Jazz Improvisation - February 5, 2005

Learning to improvise - rhythm



"It's not what you play; it's how you play it." I don't know who first spoke those words, nor do I even know if they were initially spoken in the context of jazz improvisation (a Google search returns all sorts of things), but I do know that the quotation aptly describes the importance of rhythm and phrasing in jazz improvisation. You can take any series of notes and depending upon your choice of rhythm and phrasing you can play them with a ferocity that tells the world: look out, here comes one bad mother (shut yo' mouth!), or you can play those notes as ballad, with so much emotion that audiences hang on every note with tears in their eyes. It all comes down to rhythm and phrasing.

Another popular quotation, which I'm paraphrasing, says "If you play wrong notes with good rhythm and phrasing, most people won't hear them as wrong notes. On the other hand, if your rhythm is off, it doesn't matter what you're playing; it will immediately sound bad to just about everyone." As listeners, we have a pretty good tolerance for "wrong" notes as long as they're played with good rhythm and phrasing. One example of acceptable "wrong" notes are the passing tones that we hear in just about every good jazz solo. These are the notes that are not part of the chord being played, but the way they're placed and accented in the overall phrase makes them sound perfectly fine. In fact, they're often what make the solo sound hip in the first place. Another example of acceptable "wrong" notes occurs when somebody plays outside a given harmony. Players like Woody Shaw, Kenny Garrett, and Joe Farrell are masters of outside playing. When they play outside, it doesn't sound like they're playing wrong notes at all. That's because their rhythm and phrasing gives the outside lines the support they need to sound right! They also do other things to tie those lines in, such as chromatic modulation of motifs, but it's really the rhythm and phrasing that anchors everything together. Believe me, if you gave those same "wrong" notes to a person with poor rhythm and phrasing, all you'd hear are wrong notes.


My first experience with jazz improvisation was in middle school band. Our band teacher began by teaching us how to play notes in a swing style. As a group, we all played the familiar dotted-eighth/sixteenth note rhythm that you read about in every book on jazz improvisation. Actually, most books nowadays describe it as a triplet rhythm, where the first two notes are tied... In any case, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

After learning the basic swing rhythm, we were shown the notes to the C blues scale (C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb). Once we played that through a few times, the teacher put on a play-a-long recording and soloed for a couple of choruses so we'd have some idea of what a jazz solo sounds like. Finally, we went around the class, each of us getting a chorus or two to try our hand at jazz improvisation. Naturally, after a five-minute introduction to jazz improvisation, none of us sounded good at all. But, the thing that really sticks out to me now is the fact that we forgot all about rhythm once it came time to solo. Instead, we simply ran up and down the blues scale, trying to get the notes right. Rhythm fell by the wayside and notes took over!

This approach to teaching jazz is echoed in quite a few jazz improvisation books. You start out with the basic swing rhythm. If you're lucky, you'll learn about basic the basic phrasing of eighth-note lines (offbeat accenting). But, inevitably you're deluged with chapter after chapter about scales, modes, and complex theory. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with the study of theory or it's place in jazz education. But I do have a problem with the fact that many beginning players focus too much attention on learning theory without building a solid rhythmic foundation first. Without a solid basis of rhythm and phrasing, any note you play is doomed to sound lifeless and uninteresting.


When somebody asks me for advice on learning jazz improvisation, I suggest the following starting point:

Pick a jazz recording that you really like and listen to it over and over again. As your familiarity with the tune (or solo) increases, start singing along, using simple doo-ba-da-bop syllables. The goal is to mimic the rhythm and phrasing on the recording as you sing. This includes each accent, each inflection, and everything else that's happening in the realm of rhythm and phrasing. If possible, record yourself as you sing along, so you can compare your rhythm and phrasing to that of the recording. Don't worry about getting the pitches right, you can worry about notes later.

Continue the above process until you develop a basic rhythmic vocabulary (i.e. you know what jazz rhythms sound like and you can sing them on your own). Once you reach that point, try playing the same rhythms on your instrument with single-note solos. Isolating your solo to just one pitch/note gives you the freedom to focus entirely on rhythm and phrasing. If you can make one note sound good, just imagine how good you'll sound when you add in more notes! Or, another way of looking at it might be: if you can't play a decent one-note solo, what makes you think you'll sound good with more notes? I'm such a glass is half-empty sorta guy, aren't I?

Ok, now that I've got the introduction out of the way, let's get down to business!


In both of the following tracks, I'm playing nothing but a concert Bb over a Bb concert blues track. For the trumpet players out there, this means I'm playing a C over C blues..

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - ONE NOTE, TRACK 1 - I play a one-measure phrase followed by a measure of rest. During the rest, play back the same rhythm, matching the phrasing and attacks as closely as possible. Here's an example of me playing along to this recording: iwasdoingallright - audio clip. The muted part is what you should play.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - ONE NOTE, TRACK 2- This clip lasts for two choruses. The rhythms also have a bit more variation.

Once you are able to mimic my rhythm and phrasing, try to improvise your own rhythms in response to mine.


In the following track, I'm also playing over the same concert Bb blues track, however I'm now playing both concert Bb and F (C and G for the trumpets).

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - TWO NOTE, TRACK 1 - As with the examples above, try to mimic my rhythms and phrasing. Use your ear to play the same notes that I play.


Once you get good at mimicking my rhythms and once you are able to improvise some of your own, you should try to improvise an entire solo with just a single note.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - SINGLE-NOTE BLUES - Here's an example of what a single-note solo might sound like.

If possible, record yourself playing these exercises. When you listen back, compare your rhythm and phrasing to mine. Hopefully yours will sound similar. Ideally, yours will sound even better!


Each exercise above use the Bb concert blues track from Volume 1 - "How To Play Jazz & Improvise" of Jamey Aebersold's play-a-long series. I recommend this play-a-long, not only for it's audio tracks, but also for the accompanying book. The book has a lot of useful information on a variety of topics. It's also a good resource for learning jazz theory.

If you don't have the Aebersold play-a-long, you might try one of the tracks at jazzpracticeloops.com.

UPDATE 10/06/2006: My newest ear trainer, currently in BETA, has blues and other sequences that you can use a play-a-long. Give that a try if you have nothing else.

Comment by pete

great site. your one note solo is a great example of how rhythm is important. I'm gonna start focusing on rhythm more as a result of hearing this.

apparently diz said that the rhythm comes first, then you put the notes to it!

Comment by Tom

Thanks very much for the great idea. I often get rythmically lost as I try to create melodic lines. With one or two notes, I can focus completely on rhythm.

Comment by Nick

Thank you. I completely agree: such exercises do really work. I have discovered another great method to develop a good sense of rhythm. Check it out:


I improvise or play scales and arpeggios while listening to a certain rhythm pattern.

Comment by Jim

Your exercises are brilliant! I'm toying with the idea of playing along in a Bb blues at a new jazz eve venture being run by a proper musician mate. I want to support him, but i ain't played trumpet for approx 15 years (!) and even then I was a bit of a blagger in a much more talented horn section. I'm now frantically tooting along to your rhythm tracks, yes tonite's the nite! erk! I can feel my commitment to playing growing by the minute. Thanks a mill!!!

Hi Jim,

I hope the gig went well. If not, there are always more opportunities. Also, with 15 years away from the trumpet I'd expect it to take at least a few months for you to get your chops back. In my case it took, oh, about 5 years ;-)

You can read more about my comeback journey here: http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/about_me/185/

Best wishes,


Comment by Jim

Well, I had a reality check and although I had progressed to at least a whole scale's worth of playable notes, another guy turned up with a flugelhorn, and well er, played it... Gawd, I always wanted a flugelhorn, what a lovely instrument! Anyway, after this dude had just stepped up and led the house trio for about half an hour, my sensible self said this ain't gonna work, me getting up now will be rather like turning up to rebuild the Twin Towers with a Lego set. Does that metaphor work? No matter... yes well, it's hopefully not going to take me 5 years to get me chops in order, I only want to play little spots here and there and maybe re-form part /all of my old band, just get back to playing little set parts (Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner type stuff) all our kids are grown up now and we're gettin a bit bored - hey, but I digress. Have now bookmarked you and will drop by occasionally. Keep on with the excellent website/blog or whatever it is!

Comment by Mark

What a unique approach. After reading about this, I couldn't wait to practice, I think this approach is really going to help me improvise.

I'd sure like to see these rhythms and patters written down. I checked the internet and couldn't find them anywhere.

Comment by Pepper Crutcher

I have the Abersold book # 1 but I find it user unfriendly and boring. Your site is more interesting and more fun.

"Pick a jazz recording that you really like and listen to it over and over again. As your familiarity with the tune (or solo) increases, start singing along, using simple doo-ba-da-bop syllables."

I find that just writing out heads to tunes that come on the radio, or songs from my cd collection are excellent for getting in the habit of just ripping off rhythmic framework. It's kind of a never ending game. I can take these rhythms and either write out the original melody and harmony, or completely re-write the tune with new harmonies. A lot of tweakin and just do a complete rewrite. The key to it all is the rhythm though.

donnie manuel

Comment by Rick Goldman

Hi Rick,

My name is (also) Rick and I am a much more struggling musician than you. I have a background in clarinet but am now, in middle age, focusing on tenor sax and jazz. I find your call and-response exercises excellent. I wish you had many more of them, setting out II-V-I and other phrases for example.

I find it difficult and un-stimulating to try to read jazz phrases from a book. This is a much more direct method of getting to the music, and, as you point out, the oral traditions is what it's all about, in jazz! Learning solos from recordings is surely excellent as well, but rather challenging for the hobbyist musician.

Do you know of any method or website that offers something like that?

Thanks so much and keep up the great work!

Rick Goldman,


Hi Rick Goldman,

I've actually got a blog posting in the works that focuses on ear training with recordings. It will probably be a few weeks before I have a chance to finish it, though. In the meantime, I'd suggest that you try learning phrases from various ballad recordings. Ballads tend to be full of musical gems that are relatively easy to play. And since the tempo is slow, you stand a better chance of playing what you hear by ear.





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Jazz Improvisation

I practice and hone my skills with the goal of becoming a better (dare I say "good") jazz improviser. In this section, you can read about the methods I use to improve and you can listen to recordings of my playing. The recordings will help you determine if any of the stuff I'm doing actually works ;-)

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